The Western Lands

Larry Craig, Bill Richardson, and the "libertarian West"

If you followed last year's congressional campaigns, you may have encountered the theory of the libertarian inner West. The new swing states, the argument goes, are in the Southwest and the Rockies—places whose local values of live and let live and leave us alone are increasingly at odds with the national Republican Party. The writer most closely associated with this theory is The New York Sun's Ryan Sager, and he's fairly persuasive, in part because he's careful not to overstate how libertarian the "libertarian West" really is. "These are not literal, registered, or self-identified libertarians, for the most part," he writes in his 2006 book The Elephant in the Room, "just voters who, whether or not they're particularly conservative in their personal lives, subscribe to a typically western, leave-me-alone philosophy when it comes to government busybodies in Washington, D.C."

In the last few months, two figures have raised that region's profile again. Neither is a libertarian—literal, registered, or self-identified—but both have periodically given libertarians reasons to cheer. Suss out their stances, and you might get a handle on the stances of the people who elect them.

The first is Larry Craig, a Republican, who has been Idaho's senator since 1991 but might not keep the post much longer. (In case you've been living under a toilet: Craig was busted this summer in an airport men's room for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover cop.) From a libertarian perspective, Craig's record is a mixed bag. He fights to extend his constituents' property rights, and he fights to extend their subsidies; his civil libertarian instincts are rarely roused when a gay man wants to express his sexuality anywhere outside a restroom, but he played a significant role in excising some egregious provisions of the PATRIOT Act. You don't have to probe his sex habits to see him living a double life. When he slides easily from denouncing federal bureaucrats to pushing new coal subsidies, he sounds like one of the characters in Catch-22: the "freedom-loving, law-abiding rugged individualist who held that federal aid to anyone but farmers was creeping socialism."

Put another way, Craig reflects his state's values pretty well: opposed to outside interference but not to outside assistance, socially conservative but skeptical of concentrated authority. Not fully libertarian, but with a stronger libertarian streak than you'd find in Connecticut or South Carolina.

The second figure is Bill Richardson, a Democrat, who's vying with John Edwards for the third-place spot in the race for his party's presidential nod. In the '90s, Richardson worked in Washington as Bill Clinton's secretary of energy and ambassador to the United Nations; since 2003 he has served as governor of New Mexico. My colleague David Weigel has already taken a close look at Richardson's record, and he found that, like Craig's, it's a mixed bag. Gov. Richardson slashed some taxes but raised some others; he supports medical marijuana and gun rights, but signed a statewide smoking ban.

But even with those caveats, the most striking thing about the man is how much more attractive he is in Santa Fe than he was in Washington. As governor of New Mexico, Richardson cut income, capital gains, and gross receipts taxes. As secretary of energy, he persecuted Wen Ho Lee. As the New Mexico–based candidate for president, he has staked out the most antiwar stance this side of Ron Paul, Dennis Kucinich, and Mike Gravel: He wants a quick withdrawal, exiting Iraq in just six to eight months. As ambassador to the U.N., he was a conventional internationalist, and even after moving to the Department of Energy he found time to defend Clinton's war in Kosovo.

I don't know which of these fellows is the "real" Bill Richardson—though my inclination with any politician is to imagine the worst. I do suspect that the Southwest's individualist culture, with an outlook similar to Idaho's but more socially tolerant, encourages local pols to pitch themselves accordingly. Some statesmen you admire for their stances; others you like for their constituencies. (Savvy officials will also heed the limits to the state's antistatism. Richardson's predecessor, the much more libertarian Gary Johnson, is a vocal critic of the war on drugs—and not just the laws against medical marijuana. But he didn't push his posture further than he felt the voters would accept. "I think that it is OK to launch the discussion and have the debate," he told reason in 2001. "But I don’t think it’s right to take it upon myself to pardon convicted criminals based on laws that the population has supported by electing the people that they have elected.")

So where does that leave the libertarian West? I was delighted to see the American Land Rights Association rushing to Larry Craig's defense, with a press release threatening a boycott of Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on the grounds that the cops who caught Craig had "effectively declared war on the West. They are primarily responsible for greatly weakening private property rights and Federal land use advocates in the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and in Congress." A silly gesture fueled by ridiculous rhetoric? Sure, but it sets off a happy fantasy of frontier queers and embattled landholders joining forces against Leviathan. Out with Brokeback Mountain, in with My Own Private Idaho!

Back in the real world, the West's libertarian leanings should remind us of the virtues of federalism. If Idaho and New Mexico could set their own rules about land use and marijuana without Washington interfering, they wouldn't become Hayekian utopias, but they would become much freer than they are today. That's valuable whether or not they also serve as swing votes.

But federalism only takes us so far. Foreign policy is set in Washington, not the states, and the same goes for the powers of the national executive branch. When Larry Craig criticizes the PATRIOT Act and Bill Richardson denounces the Iraq War, they may speak for much or most of their region, but that region can't set policy on its own. What it can do is produce politicians who, for all their flaws and inconsistencies, still speak the language of liberty more adeptly then the mad power-grabbers and mealy-mouthed accommodationists who dominate their parties.

Jesse Walker is reason's managing editor.

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  • Sean||

    I think you overstate your case. Remember, Colorado last year approved laws banning gay marriage and refusing to allow civil unions. And this is supposed to be one of the more liberal of the states.

  • ||

    It's easy to explain Richardson's apparent contradictions; he's a pragmatist.

    He supports the Kosovo mission and indoor smoking bans because they work, and opposed gun control and the Iraq War because they don't. Once upon a time, when he thought the Iraq War was going to work, he signed on with some neocon outfit with lots of pretty liberationist words in its name. When he realized it wasn't going to work, he decided we shouldn't let the door hit us on the way out.

  • ||

    The sociopolitical dynamic in the west is more complicated than Jesse indicates.

    In more rural areas, you find the traditional "leave me alone" individualism probably even stronger than Jesse states it--apart from Mormon enclaves, social conservatism of the Southern type doesn't really exist there. Places like Wyoming, Montana and Arizona have a long history of tolerating eccentrics who mind their own business.

    But the more urbanized areas, especially Denver and Phoenix, have been Californicated to such a large degree that they have adopted much of the nanny-state credo of the "Golden State." The Denver suburbs are full of people who would try to "milk the bull", so to speak.

  • Jesse Walker||

    The sociopolitical dynamic in the west is more complicated than Jesse indicates.

    That's a failure of communication on my part, then, because part of what I was trying to indicate is that it's far more complicated than any simple label (like "libertarian west") could convey. Indeed, I'd add a caveat to your caveat: It's not yet clear to what extent the California invasion will reshape the inner West in California's image, and to what extent it will be tempered by the migrants' disgust with what's happened (economically) to the state they're fleeing. A bit of both, I think, though overall I'm probably more pessimistic than optimistic.

    For what it's worth, Sager gets into this in his original discussion of the issue, which is more nuanced than some of the responses have given it credit for. (I'd also argue that the west coast is more culturally libertarian than the northeast, even if west coast politics haven't reflected that much recently. But that's a whole other can of worms.)

  • Brian Sorgatz||

    The Denver suburbs are full of people who would try to "milk the bull", so to speak.

    That reminds me of Kingpin.

  • ||

    That's a failure of communication on my part, then, because part of what I was trying to indicate is that it's far more complicated than any simple label (like "libertarian west") could convey. Indeed, I'd add a caveat to your caveat: It's not yet clear to what extent the California invasion will reshape the inner West in California's image, and to what extent it will be tempered by the migrants' disgust with what's happened (economically) to the state they're fleeing. A bit of both, I think, though overall I'm probably more pessimistic than optimistic.

    I was probably being a bit hyperbolic--your piece definitely gave a better picture of the west than the typical stuff I've seen. I was born in Wyoming and have visited that part of the country extensively. It's such a different mindset than either of the coasts that I tend to see a lot of misrepresentation or false comparisons with the rural South, as occurred during the Matthew Shephard case.

    I suspect that a lot of the cultural erosion in Denver and Phoenix has more to do with the standardization of urban/suburban American culture in general than with California migration. I've noticed this even driving through the South. One can see differences between suburban Montgomery, Ala. and suburban Denver, Portland, or Washington D.C., but culturally (and politically) they resemble each other more than they do nearby rural areas or the inner city.

    As you point out, many Californians who flee the Golden State don't intend to recreate the place they left. However, as a former Portlander, I've noticed that they tend to do so anyway.

  • ||

    "What it can do is produce politicians who, for all their flaws and inconsistencies, still speak the language of liberty more adeptly then the mad power-grabbers and mealy-mouthed accommodationists who dominate their parties."

    Yes, it does make me feel all warm and tingly inside when I hear "the language of liberty" being spoken. But just speaking the language isn't good enough. Or as the saying goes, actions speak louder than words.

  • ||

    Do you think they will learn to speak the "language of liberty" so well that they will go to D.C. and demand an end to all the water subsidies, cheap grazing land, free logging roads and other stuff the non-deadbeat parts of the country provide for them?

  • ||

    He supports helped to create the Kosovo mission and indoor smoking bans because they work were popular with the people Richardson was trying to please at that time

    Fixed that for you, joe. Never assume that because a politician advocates something, they privately believe that policy is a good idea.

  • ||

    Do you think they will learn to speak the "language of liberty" so well that they will go to D.C. and demand an end to all the water subsidies, cheap grazing land, free logging roads and other stuff the non-deadbeat parts of the country provide for them?

    The biggest answer to all that is to reopen homesteading, so that all of that improperly held federal land is put into private stewardship. The feds shouldn't own any land that doesn't contain federal facilities.

  • ||

    Homesteading? Where will the subsidies come from? Can't see that getting many votes in the West.

  • ||

    "(In case you've been living under a toilet: Craig was busted this summer in an airport men's room for allegedly soliciting sex from an undercover cop.)"

    Actually, if you been living under a toilet, wouldn't you have known long ago about Larry Craig?

  • JenS||

    "It's such a different mindset than either of the coasts"

    ChrisO, That is precisely why libertarians hope to create a freer state in Wyoming. There are some that don't want to move east to NH.

    TV is probably to blame for the "standardization" of culture across America.

  • ||

    Bill Richardson thinks raising the minimum wage is "good economics". He agrees with loud-mouth Bill O'Rielly that we are all being screwed by the evil oil companies, and he just cashed in his options for serving on the BOD of Valero for at least a half million profit. Hypocrite or fool.

    He's been able to cut taxes because the state is the #2 natural gas producer and gets royalties, which have gone way up. He is busy wasting that windfall with a commuter train from Albuquerque to Sante Fe that will cost at least $400 million, and he (and the rest of the visionary politicians of both parties) are enthusiastically spending another $200 million or so on the New Mexico Spaceport, which will be to the Camino Real Trail what Machu Piccu is to the Inca Trail.

    He just flouted his Hispanic heritage by speaking a little Spanish at the recent debate, thereby indicating he apparently wants the whole nation to be bilingual. Probably a good move for somebody running to be the VP on the ticket.

    Thanks to term limits, he's outa here. I'm glad to see him go but we'll probably get somebody worse. He's likable, but Libertarian??

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